Sixth confirmed Amazon worker dies amid calls for the company to release data on coronavirus infections

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KEY POINTS
  • An Amazon warehouse worker at a facility in Bethpage, New York has died from the coronavirus, the company confirmed to CNBC.
  • George Leigh, who worker at an Amazon distribution center known as DNY4, died on April 9 and his last day at the facility was March 28.
  • The worker’s death comes as the company faces growing pressure to disclose the number of workers who have tested positive or died from the virus.
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A worker assembles a box for delivery at the Amazon fulfillment center in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., April 30, 2019.
A worker assembles a box for delivery at the Amazon fulfillment center in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., April 30, 2019.
Clodagh Kilcoyne | Reuters

An Amazon warehouse employee in Long Island, New York has died from the coronavirus, the company confirmed.

George Leigh, who worked out of Amazon’s Bethpage, New York, distribution center, known as DNY4, died of Covid-19 on April 9. Leigh, who was 59 years old, left behind a daughter and several grandchildren, as well as siblings and a mother. Leigh worked as a sort associate and learning ambassador at DNY4, which involved sorting packages and pallets, as well as training new employees.

“We are saddened by the loss of an associate who had worked at our site in Bethpage, New York,” Amazon spokesperson Lisa Levandowski said in a statement. “His family and loved ones are in our thoughts.”

The worker’s death comes as Amazon faces growing pressure to disclose the number of workers who have tested positive or died from the virus. Additionally, tensions have been growing between Amazon and warehouse workers nationwide. Warehouse workers have urged the company to put in place greater safety protections, including providing paid sick leave and closing down facilities where there are positive cases for additional cleaning.

It’s not clear how or when Leigh contracted the coronavirus. Leigh was last at the facility on March 28, Amazon said. On that day, Leigh told his manager he was feeling fatigued and “needed to go home and rest,” said Todd Leigh, George’s brother, in an interview with CNBC. Amazon disputed this claim, saying Leigh had not contacted the site to say he was feeling unwell.

Leigh’s symptoms became so acute that he was rushed to Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center on April 9, complaining that he couldn’t breathe, Todd Leigh said. Leigh died shortly after arriving at the hospital, less than two weeks after he first reported experiencing symptoms of the virus.

A flyer sent around George Leigh's facility, DNY4, encouraged employees to attend a memorial service in honor of his passing.
A flyer sent around George Leigh’s facility, DNY4, encouraged employees to attend a memorial service in honor of his passing.

Amazon has repeatedly declined to comment on how many warehouse employees have died from the virus nationwide. Leigh’s passing marks the sixth known case of an Amazon worker who has died from the virus, following reports of deaths in Jeffersonville, IndianaWaukegan, IllinoisStaten Island, New YorkHawthorne, California, and Tracy, California.

The company hasn’t provided a total number of workers who have tested positive for the coronavirus at its facilities. As a result, Amazon workers have attempted to keep an unofficial tally of confirmed and unconfirmed cases nationwide. Jana Jumpp, an Amazon worker in Indiana who has been tracking the cases, estimates at least 900 employees have contracted the coronavirus and at least 10 workers have died. Amazon operates 175 warehouses across the country and some warehouses have reported dozens of cases.

‘He was so afraid’

As the number of cases have risen, so too have calls for the company to disclose data showing the full scope of employees who have fallen ill or passed away from the coronavirus. On Tuesday, 13 U.S. attorneys general asked Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey to provide a state-by-state breakdown of this information.

In a 60 Minutes interview that aired Sunday, Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of operations, said he did not know the total number of coronavirus infections at the company.

“I don’t have the number right on me at this moment because it’s not a particularly useful number,” Clark said in the interview. He said infection rates are “generally just under” what the rates are in surrounding communities.

Todd Leigh said he takes issue with Clark’s characterization that sharing the data wouldn’t be useful, adding that it’s another example of the company’s attempts to “shirk” responsibility for workers getting ill and dying on the job during the pandemic.

He said he and other members of his family have pressed Amazon to look into the circumstances of his brother’s death and the conditions at DNY4. Todd Leigh said he grew increasingly concerned as he spoke with his brother in the last few weeks of his life. He continued to work at Amazon during the height of the pandemic and without a face mask.

Amazon began rolling out face masks to employees on April 4 and it required all workers to wear them on April 10. It also began instituting social distancing rules at its facilities on March 29.

By the time that masks were issued to workers, it was already too late for George Leigh. Todd Leigh said his brother managed to get ahold of a mask at his facility during his last week on the job, but he suspects his brother was already sick with the coronavirus.

George Leigh came into contact with new employees almost daily, training them to use equipment at the distribution center. This made it “almost impossible” to follow social distancing rules, Todd Leigh said.

Amazon said it has gone to “great lengths” to keep employees safe during the coronavirus. In addition to providing face masks and sanitizer, the company also reduced the size of training groups at its facilities and staggered the introduction of new employees at its facilities. Enhanced cleanings were also introduced at its facilities in early March, Amazon said.

Despite these measures, Todd Leigh said his brother felt Amazon wasn’t doing enough to protect its employees. While George Leigh was at home sick with the virus, he contemplated whether he would ever return to his job at Amazon, given the safety risks.

“He was so afraid,” Todd Leigh said. “Before that, he questioned [going to work]. But he had bills to pay, so he said, ‘I’ve got my gloves, I’m going to do my job and try to stay safe.’”

A DNY4 employee said they chose to stay home out of fear of catching the virus. This worker, who knew the individual who passed away, asked to remain anonymous out of concern that speaking to the press could jeopardize their job.

The worker said they haven’t worked a shift at Amazon since the beginning of April. They added that they felt it was unsafe to return to work because “too many people are getting sick” and they live with their elderly mother and a young son. The worker said they cried when they found out George Leigh died last month, having developed a friendship during their time working together at Amazon.

Not long after George Leigh passed away, Todd Leigh said his younger brother and his wife, who both lived with George Leigh, have since tested positive for the coronavirus. After 21 days in quarantine, the pair seem to be recovering from the virus, Todd Leigh said.

Todd Leigh said his brother’s death has left a hole in the family and they are still seeking answers from Amazon on how he may have gotten sick. Amazon said when DNY4 representatives spoke to George Leigh’s family, they never indicated that the official cause of his death was the coronavirus, only that they believed he had Covid-19. However, Todd Leigh said the medical examiner at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center confirmed that George Leigh died from complications of the coronavirus.

He said he has grown so frustrated with the company’s response to his brother’s death that he wrote a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos expressing his concerns. He said he also filed a complaint with the New York Department of Labor.

“What we’re really trying to do is shed some light on not just what happened to us, but Amazon’s practices,” Todd Leigh said. “If someone at Amazon would just take a minute and look at the situation, they might be able to make a difference. But at this point, the feeling that I get is they don’t really care.”

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